“Contentment” By Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was an American professor, lecturer, poet, author, physician, and inventor. He wrote biographies, lectures, essays, public speeches, and poems–both serious and humorous. His best-known works include “Old Ironsides”, “The Chambered Nautilus”, “The Deacons Masterpiece”, and a collection of essays called “The Autocrat Of the Breakfast Table”.
“Contentment” is an example of his lighter verse. We have to be alert while reading this poem, because although it states what seems to be the truth, the poet implies the opposite. This poem is full of humor and irony.
Little I ask; my wants are few;
I only wish a hut of stone,
(A very plain brown stone will do,)
That I may call my own;—
And close at hand is such a one,
In yonder street that fronts the sun.
Plain food is quite enough for me;
Three courses are as good as ten;—
If Nature can subsist on three,
Thank Heaven for three. Amen!
I always thought cold victual nice;—
My choice would be vanilla-ice.
I care not much for gold or land;—
Give me a mortgage here and there,—
Some good bank-stock, some note of hand,
Or trifling railroad share,—
I only ask that Fortune send
A little more than I shall spend.
Honors are silly toys, I know,
And titles are but empty names;
I would, perhaps, be Plenipo,—
But only near St. James;
I’m very sure I should not care
To fill our Gubernator’s chair.
Jewels are baubles; ’t is a sin
To care for such unfruitful things;—
One good-sized diamond in a pin,—
Some, not so large, in rings,—
A ruby, and a pearl, or so,
Will do for me;—I laugh at show.
My dame should dress in cheap attire;
(Good, heavy silks are never dear;)—
I own perhaps I might desire
Some shawls of true Cashmere,—
Some marrowy crapes of China silk,
Like wrinkled skins on scalded milk.
I would not have the horse I drive
So fast that folks must stop and stare;
An easy gait—two forty-five—
Suits me; I do not care;—
Perhaps, for just a single spurt,
Some seconds less would do no hurt.
Of pictures, I should like to own
Titians and Raphaels three or four,—
I love so much their style and tone,
One Turner, and no more,
(A landscape,—foreground golden dirt,—
The sunshine painted with a squirt.)
Of books but few,—some fifty score
For daily use, and bound for wear;
The rest upon an upper floor;—
Some little luxury there
Of red morocco’s gilded gleam
And vellum rich as country cream.
Busts, cameos, gems,—such things as these,
Which others often show for pride,
I value for their power to please,
And selfish churls deride;—
One Stradivarius, I confess,
Two Meerschaums, I would fain possess.
Wealth’s wasteful tricks I will not learn,
Nor ape the glittering upstart fool;—
Shall not carved tables serve my turn,
But all must be of buhl?
Give grasping pomp its double share,—
I ask but one recumbent chair.
Thus humble let me live and die,
Nor long for Midas’ golden touch;
If Heaven more generous gifts deny,
I shall not miss them much,—
Too grateful for the blessing lent
Of simple tastes and mind content!